Frustrated by the fragmentation of French nationalist parties competing against the dominant mainstream political parties, Jean-Marie LePen founded the National Front in 1972. Over three decades, the party became the united voice of French authoritarianism and nationalism: anti-immigrant, often anti-Semitic, sternly law-and-order, anti-tax and anti-statist. During the Cold War the National Front was anti-communist and therefore pro-Europe, but since the collapse of the Soviet Union the Front has opposed the European Union and the common currency as assaults on French identity.
French presidential elections are run in two rounds; if no candidate wins a majority of the direct popular vote in the first round, the top two finishers contest a run-off. As many as a dozen parties run candidates in the first round, and no candidate has won a first-round majority since the Fifth Republic restored direct popular elections in 1965.
In the first round of the 2002 election, LePen outpolled Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin by just two-thirds of a percent, thereby squeaking into second place and a run-off against the incumbent president, Jacques Chirac of the Gaullist party Rally for the Republic.
Pre-election polling had consistently showed Jospin several points ahead of LePen, and all of France was stunned by LePen’s success. The French political establishment was frantic at the mere possibility that the far-right ultra-nationalist LePen might be elected President of France.
But frenzy produced neither panic nor resignation. Even Chirac’s bitterest opponents and the Socialists’ most ardent adherents recognized that the French Republic was better served by a re-elected President Chirac than by a President LePen. Politicians of virtually every political stripe urged their supporters to vote for Chirac – including Jospin and his Socialists. The campaign was effective – in the run-off, LePen added less than one percent of the vote to his first-round total, and Chirac won the largest popular landslide in French presidential election history, with 82 percent of the vote. (By comparison, in the previous election, in 1995, Chirac had beaten Jospin by just five percent of the vote.)
Today’s Republican Party establishment today faces a similar test of integrity and patriotism. Against all odds and every pundit’s prediction, the Republican primaries have given the party’s nomination to an authoritarian nationalist, a bigoted buffoon, a man who confuses decency, respect and good manners with “political correctness” and vulgarity and rudeness with plain-spokenness.
Over the last year or so, Republican Party leaders have made clear their nearly unanimous view that Donald Trump is “unfit” to be president. Yet many who expressed that view have buckled under and endorsed Trump’s candidacy, however reluctantly and however half-heartedly.
Conservative New York Times columnist Ross Douthat attributes Trump’s triumph to Republican elites’ lack of commitment “to their stated principles and favored policies“; to their lack of “honor.” Douthat acknowledges that many of these Republican elites hope that Trump will lose the general election, but he warns that Trump might win and re-make both the party and the country.
Douthat says that publicly acquiescing to Trump while privately hoping he loses is “a dishonorable, cowardly, unprincipled course.”
For representative democracy to succeed, there must be lines that we will not cross. Especially after the experience of the 20th century, we ought to know how horrible and dangerous it is to cross the line that separates us from fascism.
French Socialists recognized in 2002 that as deep as were their differences with President Chirac, the fascist alternative was utterly and unequivocally unacceptable. French leaders, and ultimately the French electorate, put principle, patriotism, honor and integrity above personal and partisan interests, and the French Republic lived to tell the tale.
We have imagined that our blood runs so thick with democracy as to render us immune to the appeals of fascism, but an unspeakably vain real estate heir has proved us wrong. Republicans who have caved in to Trump have mentioned in one fashion or another the depth of their disagreements with Hillary Clinton. But nothing in all the talk about the horrors of Hillary changes the fact that toying with the election of President Trump is crossing a line we have never before approached.